Society grande dame and art-world fixture Christophe de Menil is leaning over the stove in her Upper East Side kitchen as she explains how marine life inspired her new jewelry collection. “We eat lobsters, but we don’t really think about the parts,” says the 77-year-old, holding up a saucepan in which red bits of a dissected crustacean float in cloudy water. The lobster’s tiny heart-shaped sternum—which she re-created in gold and turned into earrings—was an exciting discovery, due to its resemblance to a certain part of the female anatomy. “It was so sexy that when I looked at it, I told my housekeeper, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know if we can use this: It really looks like a pussy!’ But,” she adds cheerfully, “I think we’ve overcome it by putting a jewel in the slit.”
It’s fitting that de Menil, who has also launched a line of wool crepe jumpsuits, has an irreverent creative streak. Her parents, after all, were John and Dominique de Menil, art patrons who, thanks to Dominique’s family fortune (she was born into the Schlumberger oil dynasty) created the Menil Collection in Houston, a Renzo Piano–designed museum brimming with pieces ranging from antiquities to contemporary works. Christophe passed the art gene on to her offspring, which include a granddaughter, budding writer and actress Caroline Snow, and grandson Max Snow, a photographer (and, incidentally, an ex-boyfriend of Mary-Kate Olsen’s). Best known, though, was her eldest grandson, Dash Snow, a high school dropout whose controversial and highly publicized art included newspapers encrusted with semen, Polaroids of raucous parties and “nests” made by trashing hotel rooms. Such heavyweight collectors as Dakis Joannou and Charles Saatchi bought Snow’s pieces, and the artist was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial before dying last July of a drug overdose at age 27.
The loss hit de Menil hard; she and Dash, she says, were “soulmates.” Her grandson was hardly the first artist to feel a kinship with de Menil, who has spent a lifetime around luminaries: She counted Merce Cunningham, Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning among her friends, and proclaims that a discussion with Jasper Johns about the meaning of life was a seminal moment in her own. “I went to a lecture uptown about European mystic Teilhard de Chardin and then hotfooted it back to Lincoln Center to see Merce Cunningham perform,” she recalls in a rap session about the “enthralling” nature of New York in the Sixties. “I was sitting in a box next to Jasper, and I said to him: ‘Oh, my God. I just heard this rather interesting talk—and I think we are the divine.’ And he said, ‘Well, you almost got it.’ It was so huge!” she adds, her pale green eyes wide with New Age wonder.